Ring Modulators : What Are They?

Ring Modulators - we take a detailed look

We take a deep dive into the world of ring modulators and how they work. GFXD recently reviewed the Fairfield Circuitry Randy’s Revenge. Until then, we hadn’t spent much time with a ring modulator, and it was fun! So, this is what prompted this article.

First things first - what is modulation?

At its core modulation is the act of superimposing one waveform on to another. This technique is used to effectively transmit that waveforms.

For example, radio broadcasts are frequency modulated.The audio to be transmitted is “superimposed” on a high frequency wave for transmission.

This high frequency wave is then removed when received and, lo and behold, there’s your audio signal!

Picture credit:Tait Radio Academy

Ring modulation works on similar principles to the above. They generate the sum and difference of the frequencies input. This produces a harmonically rich and complex sounds.

So, one signal would be input from the guitar and the other signal would be typically a sign or a square wave generated within the pedal.

A bit of history

Harald Bode and Dr Robert

One of the first ring modulators invented, was by Harald Bode. He incorporated a modulator in his Melochord keyboard in the 1950s.

One of the early commercial ring modulators was the Moog Ring Modulator Model 101. This was developed by Dr Robert Moog in the 1960 / 70s.

Given the inventor, you won’t be surprised to learn that this was first developed for the synthesizer community. The ring-mod has subsequently been developed by other manufacturers for other instruments.

The Model 101 was a standalone unit that could be connected to other synthesizer modules or instruments. It became a popular tool among musicians and sound designers, contributing to the unique and ground-breaking sounds of the era.

Picture credits: Wikipedia & Reverb

Where are ring modulators used?

In music, they are commonly used to create metallic or robotic tones, alien-like textures, and unconventional harmonies. They’re really good at creating atmospheric and eerie sounds of sci-fi spaceships, robotic voices, and the supernatural.

For this reason, many experimental artists use ring modulation for not just their  keyboards  but for guitars and beyond.One of the earlier, and probably more famous uses of the ring modulator was at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in creating the voice of the Daleks in Doctor Who.

But ring modulators have touched most genres of guitar music.

Tony Iommi’s guitar solo on Black Sabbath ‘s paranoid was ring modulated, and also elements of David Bowie’s work, for example heroes. Also there was Pink Floyd’s “On The Run” from the Dark Side of the Moon which also featured ring modulated sounds (not a discrete unit , but built into the synth used – we think).

What is the best ring modulator for guitar?

Well, as always it depends what you’re looking for. There are ring modulators with varying degrees of complexity and additional effects.

The Fairfield is a pure ring modulator. The other pedals combine with other effects to give more options, but are a bit more complexity in use.

The Raster is primarily delay & pitch shift , but the pitch shift function can be driven into ring modulation. Both the Enzo and Syntax Error 2 are versatile and MIDI controllable. As always it’s horses for courses!

How can I get the best out of my ring modulator?

It’s true that first ring modulators can be a bit of a handful. But equally they can open up new ways of approaching music. They are both powerful and versatile, and can unlock a world of creative possibilities in sound design and music production.

By understanding the principles and employing effective tips and techniques, you can harness the power of ring modulation to create unique and captivating sonic experiences.

Here are a few thoughts:

  • Try different levels of modulation depth and speed to achieve various tonal variations. Higher modulation depths can result in more pronounced and dramatic effects, while subtle modulation can add a delicate touch of texture to your sounds.
  • Experiment with dissonance and unconventional harmonies. Ring modulation often generates harmonically rich and dissonant tones. It takes a while to get used to, and sometimes it’s worth experimenting with aligning the modulator frequency with the root note or chord that you are playing. This gives a less discordant sound – if that’s what you want of course.
  • Combine ring modulation with other effects. Ring modulation can be further enhanced by combining it with other effects and processing techniques. For example, try adding reverb, delay, or distortion after the ring modulator to shape the resulting sound. Experiment with the signal chain and the order of effects to achieve different sonic characteristics and textures.
  • Blend ring modulation with dry signals. Incorporating the dry or unaffected signal alongside the ring modulated sound can add depth. Again, this can be a technique for making the modulator less Extreme. Depending upon modulation type and frequency, if the dry mix is prominent this can be a method of thickening the guitar sound.
  • Ring modulators don’t just have to be used for crazy atmospherics. Dial back the modulation depth and the speed, and often you will find a very usable tremolo.

Future trends and innovations in ring modulation technology

Ring modulation has been a staple in audio processing for decades now, creating unique and interesting sounds.

As technology continues to advance, we can only anticipate exciting developments in ring modulation technology.

The advent of increasingly powerful digital signal processors will drive more sophisticated algorithms and improved modelling of analogue ring modulators. There is real demand to create some of the sounds of previous decades, without the issues of physical equipment size and integration issues.

The current crop of ring modulators for guitars are really very good and integration, if required, can be achieved using MIDI  as we can see on the Syntax Error 2 and Enzo.

All in all, whilst some consider the ring modulator a bit of a novelty effect and one to be used sparingly, it can be a very useful tool on the pedal board, as well as expanding the horizons of both writing and technique.

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